Righteousness: Imputed? Infused? Confused?

Righteousness presents itself as no minor theme that finds itself peppered all over Scripture. When asked what Righteousness is, many Christians find themselves befuddled in attempting to explain this concept especially to our non-Christian friends. It is important to note that other beliefs also have concepts of Righteousness; so when I say many Christians have trouble explaining Righteousness to our non-Christian friends, I mean to explain Righteousness in the Christian context with all its nuances. For example, many religions traditionally associated with the Far East like Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism employ the word Dharma to mean righteous living/practice or truth.[1]

Much can be said on this subject even when narrowed down to within the Christian sphere of understanding, so I will focus this article to an aspect of Righteousness hotly debated in the Christian realm, namely the nature of Righteousness’ relationship to us whether by imputation or infusion. This article is meant to provide some layman understanding of the issue so that further self-study will be made easier.

But before we delve into the matter, it would be best to establish some solid footing in the definition of Righteousness in order to see how it relates to the whole imputation versus infusion debate.

What is Righteousness?

The Greek δɩκαɩοσύνη (dikaiosunē) and Hebrew צדקה (tzedakah) are traditionally translated into English as Righteousness, Justice (or even Charity) depending on the context.[2] In these contexts, Righteousness/ Justice is usually presented and defined along the lines of “fulfilment of an obligation/ requirement/ demand.”

A couple of examples of Righteousness being rendered in the fulfillment sense with brief commentary are listed below:

(All translations are taken from the ESV unless stated otherwise)

Deuteronomy 6:25

And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’


Moses had just given Israel the commandments and statutes which they were supposed to observe when they lived in the Promised Land. Israel would be counted righteous if they were to do and fulfill all that they were commanded to do.

Matthew 3:15

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.


It is the author’s belief that the baptism of Jesus was symbolic of His entry into the priestly ministry, just as priests and high priests had to perform a ritual bath to consecrate themselves to minister in the Tabernacle, fulfilling the commandment of God.[3] Much more can be expounded on this matter but that is not the focus of this article.

Now that we have established the definition of Righteousness as the state of fulfillment of God’s demands, let us now proceed to define and examine each mode by which we receive righteousness, and how it all fits into the understanding of soteriology.

Infused Righteousness

Traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic perspective of justification, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the Protestant view that justification is through faith[4] by the grace of God.[5] However, it is the mechanism by which that faith justifies which the two camps differ on. The Catechism states:

The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.[6]

Robert Hooker, a 17th-century theologian writes of the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness as below:

(Words have been rewritten to reflect 21st century spelling. Word order and grammar remains)

This grace (righteousness) they (Roman Catholics) will have to be applied by infusion, to tend that as the body is warmed by the heat which is in the body, so the soul might be righteous by inherent grace, which grace they make capable of increase; as the body may be more warmed, so the soul more and more justified,…[7]

Lest the author be accused of referring to a non-Catholic for the explanation of Infused Righteousness, below is an excerpt from the Council of Trent:

“Justification is not the mere remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renovation of the inward man through the voluntary reception of grace and gifts of grace; whereby an unjust man becomes just, the enemy a friend, so that he may be an heir according to the hope of eternal life … The only formal cause of justification is the justice (justitia) of God, not that by which he himself is just, but that by which he makes us just, — that namely by which we are gratuitously renewed by him in the spirit of our minds, and are not only reputed, but really are and are denominated just, receiving justice into ourselves each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Spirit imparts to each as He pleases, and, also, according to each one’s own disposition and cooperation . . .”[8]

From Hooker and the Council’s explanation, we can note that the Roman Catholic understanding of infused, justifying faith is that it is seen as the preparation of the believer’s disposition to a sanctifying process where a believer’s righteousness can be enhanced or diminished, rather than a declarative of a believer’s legal standing before God. The source of this ebb and flow of this saving grace thus lies in the observance of sacraments, performance of good works with the proper disposition… or the neglect/ denial thereof as implied by the Council:

If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; – though all (the sacraments) are not necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.[9]


Based on the understanding of Infused Righteousness, the Roman Catholic understanding of Justification which separates the period of change in legal status before God and the change in a believer’s disposition allows for (or dare I say, necessitate) the doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory is explained in the Catechism as:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.[10]


The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.[11]

To explain further, because a believer is infused with saving grace and the righteousness can ebb and flow with the observance (or neglect) of the Sacraments and other works, it stands to reason that at the end of a believer’s life a believer may still have some unrighteousness left from lesser sins10. Purgatory is then the final purification to rid the believer of the leftover unrighteousness after which he may enter heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory is further expounded here.

Imputed Righteousness

Imputed Righteousness, which is traditionally associated with the Reformed camp, postulates that our justification before God stems not from the inherent righteousness of a believer but from the iustitia aliena (alien righteousness) of Christ.

Believers are thus, according to Luther, righteous on account of the alien righteousness of Christ which is imputed to them – that is, treated as if it were theirs through faith[12]

The Westminster Larger Catechism elucidates the distinction between justification and sanctification in this manner:

“Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification, his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued; the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.” [13]

It is important to note the distinction made in the Reformed camp between justification and sanctification as the making of this distinction forms the main thrust between the divide between the Roman Catholic and Reformed understanding of Justification.

Imputation in the context of Scriptural language means to ascribe the status of righteous i.e to regard someone as having fulfilled the Law, or in other words ‘to justify’. It is in this nuance which the Reformed camp speaks of Christ’s righteousness (Christ fulfilling the Law) being imputed unto the believer. The believer is then looked upon by God as though the believer has fulfilled the Law himself.

Though a believer’s legal status may be right before God, the Apostle Paul rightly points out that this declaration of a believer’s justification in Christ is by no means a license to sin.[14] Sanctification, though distinct from Justification, always follows Justification. Sanctification therefore, in one of many understandings in the Reformed mind, is the continual working towards Holiness in conformity to the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.[15]

Much can be said about the nature and mechanism of imputation such as the double-imputation or whether it is only the Passive Obedience of Christ that is imputed. Once again, the author may do so in a future article.

Closing Notes

It is the author’s opinion that the divide between the Roman Catholic and Protestant understanding of Justification can mostly be characterised in one question:

Do the change in a believer’s legal status before God and the change in the believer’s disposition to the will of God come together or separately?

The answer to the above question, be it ‘together’ or ‘separately’, will then lead to one of the two views. As mentioned in the beginning, the aim of this article is to provide a basic framework by which the reader may use to understand the arguments employed by the various camps in their espousing of each doctrine in their own self-study.

The author notes that there is a lack of Scripture quoted in this article employed by both sides in support and against each position. This has been intentionally done so that the readers may be spurred to inculcate a Berean spirit and examine the Scriptures for themselves to see if these things are true [16].

Fides quarens intellectum.


[1] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.xiv

[2] Strong’s Greek Concordance #1343; Strong’s Hebrew Concordance #6666

[3] Exodus 40:12-15; Leviticus 16:4

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church #153

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1996

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1999

[7] Hooker, Justification (Works V, 110.11 – 111.7)

[8] Canones Concilli Tridentini; De Justificatione, vii. viii.

[9] Canon IV, The Seventh Session of the Council of Trent

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1030

[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1031

[12] McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction pp.126

[13] Westminster Confession, Larger Catechism. Q.77

[14] Romans 6:1-14

[15] Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Ghost, Book VIII pp.390

[16] Acts 17:11

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *